Our weekly bible study group met this afternoon to read and wrestle with Psalm 91. We may have come out of it with our hips out of joint, but the wrestling itself is good spiritual exercise.
And this is a psalm to wrestle with (or to wrestle against). It is a strange one – and it gets stranger the more closely we examine it. It is very far removed from our modern / post-modern scientific rationalism. It was written in a time when demons and creatures of the night ruled the darkness – when illness was an entity to be feared. Psalm 91 seems to be a charm against these principalities, powers, and rulers of darkness[i]; it is a “liturgy against disease produced by the attacks of evil spirits (McCullough, 493).”[ii] This psalm is described by the rabbinical writers as a “song against evil occurrences” or “the song against plagues.”[iii] And is still read in some Jewish traditions during the stops of funeral processions as a way of warding off harmful spirits.
Though he isn’t mentioned specifically, it seems to be the Canaanite chthonic god, Resheph, “lord of battle and diseases, which he spreads through his bow and arrows" (Xella, 701)[iv] that Psalm 91 has in mind. The faithful of God is promised protection against the “terror of the night and the arrows that fly by day,” the poisoned pestilential arrows of the demonic deity Resheph.
Resheph appears elsewhere in the bible – though as a personification of those natural forces, as a diminished deity now in forced subservience to Yahweh.
In Deuteronomy 32: 23 - 24 Yahweh says: I will heap mischiefs upon them; I will spend mine arrows upon them. They shall be burnt with hunger, and devoured with burning heat, and with bitter destruction: I will also send the teeth of beasts upon them, with the poison of serpents of the dust. (KJV) Resheph (here translated as “burning heat”) is one of the arrows of disaster fired by Yahweh.
In Psalm 78:48 - He gave up their cattle also to the hail, and their flocks to hot thunderbolts. (KJV) Resheph here is the flaming “thunderbolts.”
In the bible Resheph is often seen company with other demonic forces such as Qeteb “the destroyer” (he is there in Deuteronomy 32 as “bitter destruction”) and Deber “the pestilence” (he is the “plague that prowls in the dark” of Psalm 91: 6). The prophet Habakkuk sees Yahweh going off to war with Deber going before him and Resheph following after - Before him went the pestilence, and burning coals went forth at his feet. Habakkuk 3:5 (KJV)
Plague, pestilence, burning arrows of fever and death. These were the terrors of the night – the plague prowling in the gloom and the scourge stalking at noon. These demonic forces caused a thousand to fall on one side, and ten thousand at the other side of Yahweh’s faithful.
But the faithful himself would not need to worry. He would live to see the bloated rotting bodies of his enemies (91: 8) but no plague would approach his tent because he knew and acknowledged the name of God, and trusted Yahweh to be his stronghold.
I've written on Psalm 91 before:
By the Speaking of this Charm
Can We Find that Secret Place of the Most High?
[i] Ephesians 6:12
[ii] McCullough, W. Stewart, “Psalms: Exegesis” in Psalms; Proverbs vol. IV of the Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 1955.
[iii] Talmud, Shevu’oth 15b
[iv] Xella, Paolo, “Resheph” in The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI 1999.